Paradise Regained is composed of four books averaging about five hundred lines of blank verse each; the poem, therefore, contains more than two thousand lines. The Gospel of Luke, John Milton’s principal source, is contained in seventeen verses spread over two chapters. Although Milton regarded this “brief epic” as his greatest masterpiece, that evaluation has not generally been shared by his critical or popular readership. Unlike his internationally acclaimed epic Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), Paradise Regained lacks both an intense conflict between worthy moral antagonists and the narrative action such conflicts afford. To many, the novel’s Satan seems to have been pathetically reduced to an incompetent schemer who is no match for the stoical Jesus of Nazareth, who dominates the extended debates occupying most of the epic. Yet if Milton was not wholly wrong about his final work, in what does its greatness consist?
Although lacking some of the complexity of its forerunner, Paradise Regained can be breathtaking in its stark poetic simplicity and in its profound narrative expansion of Luke’s brief account of Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness. To appreciate its narrative “action” is thus to understand how Milton uses a dialogical form of conflict drawn from the book of Job to illuminate and expand these three themes. Yet it is also to understand how Job-like this Jesus is, who is not merely an omniscient being who must “inevitably” triumph over Satan but a man undergoing extreme trial without assistance from friends or family, including his heavenly father. Confronted by the most powerful opponent he or any human will ever face, his success becomes a virtual summa of the virtues of the rational Christian, the person who diligently employs well-disciplined mental energies in conjunction with a well-grounded faith in divine providence. The temptations Jesus is required to face are lack of faith, hunger, desire for glory, desire to overthrow the enemies of his people by violence, and pride in being declared the beloved Son of God. Milton’s anti-Trinitarianism allows him to present Jesus as the highest type of human being, the true Son of God whose example has something to teach all people, a being divine only in being fully and perfectly human. Like the rest of humankind, he can demonstrate his love of God only by maintaining his faith, hope, and integrity, which in turn empower his love of others and of self.
The contrast to this all-embracing love is the all-enslaving hate of Satan and his cohorts, who have by now become less like the mighty archangels of Paradise Lost and more like the spirits of worldly ambition, pride, and greed who deceive the faithful and the wicked alike. What they lack in epic splendor is compensated for in psychological realism, which portrays in them all the qualities of those who would achieve earthly glory only for the purposes of domination and exploitation. As he himself gradually realizes, Jesus is their moral opposite, the one who would subdue the world by first subduing himself and his passions, the egoistic cravings that would render his rule despotic rather than liberating. The more compassionate and less stoical aspect of Jesus’ refusal to yield to any of Satan’s temptations is dramatically highlighted by scenes that portray his devastated followers sadly “missing him thir joy so lately found,” who they “began to doubt, and doubted many days.” Even Mary begins to doubt, but as the maternal equivalent of her son, she “with thoughts/ Meekly compos’d awaited the fulfilling.” This behavior was rewarded once Jesus “unobserv’d/ Home to his Mother’s house private return’d.” Such success depends upon a heroism neither military nor tragic but fundamentally individual and lyric—something available to anyone who sees personal ethics as the clue to social responsibility.
In a sense, then, Milton challenges the reader to reject mainstream heroic values in favor of...
(The entire section is 982 words.)